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John Presland: A Pioneer for Special Education



Born November 1935 in Mile End within the sound of Bow bells - so officially a cockney - John grew up in Surrey and was briefly evacuated to Paignton during WWII. Perhaps inspired by roaming the local countryside, he developed an interest in nature, and botany became a lifelong passion for him. He became well-known on the botanical scene for his numerous talks, pamphlets, articles, and series of books on botany as a hobby and within the arts, as well as for his practical conservation activities.

Graduating in Natural Sciences at St Catharine’s, Cambridge, John taught Botany at Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School, Sutton Coldfield. His powers of observation and investigative intellect served him very well in both Botany and later Psychology.

John married Patricia Ake in August 1960 and in 1961, now training as an EP and wanting experience of different educational needs, he joined Boldmere Junior School. There he initiated a practical, exploratory approach to Science, designing work-cards to guide children’s investigations. This approach proved a template for his future work: careful instruction on what to do and how to do it. I remember he would begin a recorded dictation for his Secretary “Take a clean sheet of A4…”.

In 1964, when John was awarded his Dip. Ed. Psych. from Birmingham University, many children were deemed ‘ineducable’ and sent to Junior Training centres. John, allocated one such youngster during his EP training, and in the heady days before Health and Safety, made a raft with the youth and floated it on the local lake.

The EP’s primary job back then was to decide whether nominated children were ESN (“educationally subnormal”) and should go to a special school or not. Little help was offered to teachers in either setting to assist such pupils.

John, who eventually became deputy PEP in Birmingham, created innovative, practical, behaviour-based approaches, training teachers to assist children with learning and behavioural difficulties. He published pamphlets and books for teachers and articles in professional journals. He was a pioneer in special education and inclusion; the principles of behaviourism he espoused could be used anywhere. I remember him telling me how ‘intermittent positive reinforcement’ was the most effective strategy for changing behaviour.

John was PEP and Senior Adviser for Special Education in Wiltshire from 1975 until he retired in 1997, weathering legislative changes and local government reorganisations. In Wiltshire, John became increasingly active at national level. He published continually, was assessor for professional journals and externally examined the MSc (Ed. Psych.) at Southampton. He served on Government working parties and in the National Executive of the AEP (1977–1982), including as AEP President for 1980-81. A member of the BPS Educational and Child Psychology sub-committee on CPD, he was honoured with a BPS Fellowship in 1992 for his “contributions over many years, through practice and publications, to the development of school psychological services in Britain, as well as to the application of psychology to education in three main areas: basic literacy skills, the management of behaviour in schools, and the education of children with severe learning difficulties”.

I worked with John from the mid ‘eighties until his retirement. His human qualities were as impressive as his quick mind. I never saw him lose his temper. He was courteous, straight, and clear thinking, a humanitarian rather than a politician. He had a wicked sense of humour and would murmur a comment with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

After retirement, John continued to enjoy botanical trips around the world. He learnt German, complementing his Italian A-level gained whilst working. He could spend more time with his beloved wife Pat, who predeceased him in December 2020, and their fond children and grandchildren.

John was an example of the saying ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’: of how an individual with a dynamic and compassionate approach could make positive changes as education became universal in Britain.

Shelagh Graham
Senior Educational Psychologist (Retired)

April, 2022


John Presland died peacefully in hospital on 22nd February 2022, aged 86.

He served as AEP President in 1980 - 1981 and was highly respected within the EP profession and beyond - he will be missed by many.

john presland

Afterword: John Presland's family is arranging a Life Celebration for John and his wife in early July - please seek contact details for family from the editor if you would like to know more details.

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